Assad faces new test with ‘Day of Martyrs’ protests

Syrian ruler appoints panel to reassess emergency law, says he’s probing recent killings.

By OREN KESSLER
March 31, 2011 13:46
2 minute read.
Assad

Assad 311 reuters. (photo credit: reuters)

 
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Facing an unprecedented challenge to his 11-year rule, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced Thursday he had ordered investigations into the deaths of demonstrators in two protest-racked cities, and taken steps toward reassessing the country’s despised emergency law.

Online activists have called for a “Day of Martyrs” on Friday to march in solidarity with the at least 61 protesters killed by Assad’s security forces in the southern city of Deraa and in Latakia, on Syria’s northwestern coast, in recent days.

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Assad also said he had ordered authorities to examine granting citizenship rights to Syria’s largely disenfranchised Kurdish community. The state news agency SANA said Assad had formed a committee to “solve the problem of the 1962 census” in the eastern region of al- Hasaka. That census resulted in 150,000 Kurds who now live in Syria being denied nationality.

SANA reported that the panel Assad had appointed to examine the emergency law would prepare anti-terrorism legislation to replace it. The panel, SANA said, would prepare “legislation including protecting the nation’s security and the citizens’ dignity, and fighting terrorism, paving the way for lifting the emergency law.” It said the committee would complete its work by April 25.

Syrian officials said last week that a decision had been taken to abolish the five-decade-old emergency law. But in a defiant speech to parliament Wednesday, Assad made no reference to rescinding the law, nor set a timetable for reforms including legislation on political parties, media freedom and fighting corruption.

Instead he blamed Israel and other outside conspirators for fomenting protest to divide the country, and vowed that Syrians would “unite” and prevail.


Footage posted on YouTube Thursday showed some Syrians reacting disgustedly to the speech, branding Assad a liar and a criminal.

Other footage showed protests in Latakia, Hama and Deraa – including images of what appeared to be Syrian security vehicles driving into small groups of protesters at high-speed.

People were heard shouting slogans demanding freedom and declaring that “it is better to die than be humiliated.”

Robert Baer, a former CIA operative in Syria, wrote Wednesday in the Financial Times that the prospect of seeing Libya-scale unrest in Syria is slim. Syrians, he wrote, remember well the 1982 crackdown by Hafez Assad, the current president’s father, on a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the central town of Hama in which between 10,000 and 40,000 people were killed.

“There is no way to predict whether Mr Assad has the stomach for another Hama, or for that matter, whether things will get bad enough for him to consider it,” Baer wrote.

Referring to Assad’s ruling Alawite sect, the dominant force in the military, he wrote, “the one certainty is that if he and the Alawites are forced from power, Syria will not have an army to fill the vacuum. And then the question becomes whether or not the west intervenes to stop a civil war… If Hama is any guide, the potential for violence in Syria makes Libya and Yemen look mild.”

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